BEIRUT: Thousands of striking teachers and public sector employees took to the streets Wednesday to protest the government’s delay in referring a pay hike to Parliament, threatening to begin an open-ended strike in February if their demands continue to be unheeded.
Labor Minister Salim Jreissati responded to the renewed protests by saying that the government does not act under threats, reiterating that the Cabinet will refer the new pay scale to the legislature after its financing is secured and the impact of the raise on the country’s economy is studied.
Protesters gathered outside the Information Ministry on Hamra’s main road in Beirut and marched to the Grand Serail in the city center, under a call by the Union Coordination Committee.
“It is shameful not to keep promises” and “Employees will not work before the salary raise is referred to Parliament,” read some banners carried by protesters.
Speaking outside the Grand Serail, Nehme Mahfoud, the head of the Association of Private Schools Teachers, slammed Prime Minister Najib Mikati, holding him responsible for the delays that have held up the new salary scale.
“You are to blame, Najib Mikati. You and your government,” Mahfoud said.
“Prime Minister Najib Mikati has no right to keep the salary raise in his drawer,” he added.
Mahfoud also warned that the committee would stage an open-ended strike in February if the government continued to ignore UCC demands.
“The first week of February will be decisive, as demonstrators will take to the streets and never leave [and] the government that is unjust to its people will fall,” Mahfoud said.
In September, the government approved a salary raise for public sector employees and teachers at private and public schools but did not refer it to Parliament. The Cabinet has maintained that it is trying to secure means to finance the cost of the raise before sending it to Parliament.
The head of the Secondary Teachers Association Hanna Gharib expressed hope that President Michel Sleiman would work to help secure the teachers’ demands.
“I hope President Sleiman will directly intervene so that the raise is referred to Parliament in accordance with the deal reached [with the government],” Gharib said.
He said the fact that the pay hike was not referred to Parliament after it was approved by the Cabinet is a clear violation of the Constitution “that you do not accept, Mr. President.”
Gharib said the government’s defense for delaying referring the raise to Parliament is a shallow excuse, as revenues to finance it could be secured by combating corruption and the squandering of resources in the public sector.
He slammed the Cabinet for not addressing UCC demands during its session Tuesday. “Yesterday the Cabinet convened and did not care about more than 800,000 Lebanese who will earn their living from the raise,” he said.
Gharib also held the government responsible for the strikes because it has failed to fulfill its promises to teachers.
The UCC has held several meetings with Mikati and a ministerial committee following up on the matter and received a promise that the salary scale would be referred to Parliament by the end of last August.
But with no sign of progress six months later, Gharib threatened to hold an open-ended strike that would paralyze the public sector. “Let the month of February be the month of referring the raise to Parliament to finish up this matter,” he said.
The unions have gone on strike several times since the start of the academic year over the same issue and are frustrated by the government dragging its feet.
After the protest, a UCC delegation met with Jreissati at his office. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Jreissati said he told the delegation that the government “does not act under threats.”
Jreissati said he informed UCC officials that Mikati is holding meetings to study potential negative repercussions of the raise on the economy in light of a report he received from the International Monetary Fund, along with other reports.
“I explained this to them and told them that the prime minister has promised to intensify these meetings,” he said. “Most importantly, I told them that the president has signed a decree to call Parliament to hold an extraordinary term to study the draft budget law and related draft laws, along with other draft laws the government has referred.”
Jreissati said that Sleiman’s move would allow Parliament to receive and discuss the raise after the study of its repercussions is completed and financing is secured.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Gharib said that union demonstrations should not be considered a threat but rather a call to action.
“We are not making threats against the government, we are telling them there is a salary raise approved by the Cabinet that should be referred to Parliament,” he said.
Separately, after a regular meeting, the General Labor Confederation called for adjusting salaries for the rising cost of living and for a dialogue between business, government and labor.